GonzoBanker is pleased to announce William Azaroff of Vancity, Canada’s largest credit union, as our March GonzoBanker of the Month. No pun intended, we think William is in the vanguard when it comes to envisaging the role social media and Web technologies can play in [re]defining the way financial institutions relate with their constituencies.
Name: William Azaroff
Title: Director, Online Banking & Engagement
GonzoBanker Title: Web Wunderkind
One Thing Leads to Another: William attended University of Victoria with the intention of obtaining a degree in theatre. A bit of an autodidact, however, he soon rejected book learning in favor of street smarts and left school to start making films – which, he laughed, “naturally led me to banking.”
1990s Seattle was the launch pad for William’s journey to Vancity. As William tells it, working as an indie filmmaker landed him smack dab in the middle of the dot.com era. Here, he was able to translate his filmmaking skills from film to digital, and the Internet turned out to be the perfect vehicle for showing his films. This led him deeper into the Web, where he built an online community for film enthusiasts and worked with online film pioneer Atom Films. From there, he began producing Web sites for big movie studios like Disney and Universal. “Soon enough, I was firmly entrenched in the Web,” said William. “I found a real home with that niche, and left filmmaking behind.” William has since led strategic Web projects at companies as diverse as Honda, Intuit Canada and the Vancouver Port Authority. Ultimately, William landed at Vancity, where he has gained a fair amount of online recognition for implementing www.ChangeEverything.ca, a social media project that is, quite simply, about making change – in your life, your neighborhood or your world. The site, quietly sponsored by Vancity, was initially spurred by the spirit behind its advertising campaign, “You can change everything if you change your bank.” William says of Vancity, “I work for a company that does amazing and brave things to improve the lives of our community members.”
Sea Change: GonzoBanker was curious about what it’s been like to transition from leading Web projects in verticals like entertainment and media to heading up “all things online” at a financial institution. William reports he likes it more than he might have guessed. “Although there is something fun about working on ‘easy to try’ products that can be acquired frequently,” said William, “there can also be something trivial about them. It’s hard to switch financial institutions, and the decision cycle [to do so] is far longer. There are enormous opportunities to build a relationship with the member or customer and be part of their everyday life. They use your services frequently, and your services, especially online banking, become an integrated part of their financial existence.?”
William’s responsibilities at Vancity are varied. There is online banking, which he loves; marketing initiatives, which are creative and fun; and issues pertaining to social responsibility. “It all adds up to a working life I find very rewarding and fulfilling,” said William.
New Economy, New Realities. Most recently William shifted gears from being deeply absorbed in the ChangeEverything.ca site to focusing on building more effective online communication vehicles for Vancity members using the tools and techniques he?s developed through years of immersion in the Web and social media. The work has him knee-deep in building business cases and putting together project plans, but according to William, that?s a sign of the times. In today?s economy William suspects it would have been very difficult if not impossible to get buy-in for an out on a limb project like ChangeEverything.ca that didn’t have any kind of definable return on investment. That being said, “ChangeEverything.ca was one of those magical projects that came about in all the right ways, with the right support. It has been extremely well received and it is amazing to be a part of this evolving and growing community of change agents. At its core, I find it immensely satisfying to work for a company that knows who it is and what it stands for. It helps me direct my energy and focus.”
Lessons Learned. William’s advice to GonzoBankers looking to apply social media techniques in a business setting is to know what you?re trying to achieve and ensure your objectives have a natural alignment with your brand and values. “That will help grease the wheels for a project’s success, and move it to a successful implementation that is popular with your organization and the end user.”
Build a Platform, Not a Campaign. William calls to mind one of the ironies of today’s “instant” media, which is that there’s’ no sidestepping trust – and the time it takes to build it. William believes effective communication takes time, and whenever you are appealing to people’s social side, it takes them a while to warm up to what you are doing. Case in point: “I was in a meeting very recently where people wanted to use Twitter as a communications channel for a specific initiative. I’m all for it, and in this case it was a really good fit. But the timeline was too short. By the time we could build the trust to achieve followers, the initiative would be over.” The bottom line, he said, is that social media works best when you can leverage it as a long-term solution for two-way communication, from which you can layer in other needs. “Build loyalty and trust slowly and somewhat organically and you will have a rich following for your future messages,” William said. “In a nutshell, build a platform, not a campaign.”
Shout Out. William gives a major shout out to Vancity’s social media strategist, Kate Dugas. “I take some credit for ChangeEverything.ca as a business project, shepherding it through and getting it launched,” William said. “Kate took a bunch of files sitting on a server and created a community with a heart. She added a layer of authenticity that helped make the initiative a success. That goes beyond my skill-set.”
Outside the Office. When he’s not putting in time as the Online Guru at Vancity or populating his blog (“I’m like the Velvet Underground,” William quipped. “Not that many people listen to me, but those that do are listened to by many.”), William enjoys spending spare time with his wife, Amy, and four year old son Ivan. Hanging out at the aquarium or science museum or with friends and family are all popular. “I’m a social guy,” laughed William, “somewhat easy to please.”
When it Comes to Cinema. “I started out in film, so this question is too big for me to answer. The weight of it. My mind hurts. Ow.”
Feeding the iPod. “I downloaded an old album I used to have by Camper Van Beethoven called Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and am extremely happy to have it back in my life.”
We are in awe of William’s insightful approach to social media and his commitment to preserving its authentic nature while considering its many applications. GonzoBanker is proud to donate $250 in William’s name to Vancity Community Foundation
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